J.M.W. Turner’s radical masterworks grace ‘Painting Set Free’

Joseph Mallord William Turner created staggeringly luminous paintings – mythological, historical and natural landscapes gleaming with sunlight or misty with fog or locomotive steam. An exhibition of works by the 19th-century British master in San Francisco is the first to focus on his later years, when Turner was particularly productive and unconventional.

“J. M. W. Turner: Painting Set Free,” at the de Young Museum, contains 65 oil and watercolor paintings produced by Turner from 1835, when he turned 60, through 1850, when he exhibited his final Royal Academy show. The pieces come from international lenders, including Tate Britain, and range from studies to masterworks.
Turner elevated the status of landscape painting, a genre he considered “akin to epic poetry,” said Colin B. Bailey, outgoing director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, at Friday’s press preview.

“His compositions, use of color and technique both as painter and watercolorist were strikingly original,” Bailey said, heralding the exhibit’s arrival at the de Young as he prepares to move to New York to head the Morgan Library and Museum.

The London-born Turner was a barber’s son who entered the Royal Academy at age 14 and was influenced by Renaissance masters. A product of the Romantic era, he painted landscapes infused with personal passion.

Covering the final stretch of Turner’s career, the paintings in the show feature intensely rendered light. While sometimes described as a proto-impressionist, or an inspiration for the 20th-century abstract expressionists, Turner followed his own drumbeat.

He regarded light as a manifestation of God and the painting of light as a spiritual act. His unorthodox process included the scratching and scraping of paint. Conservative critics decried the somewhat nonrepresentational look of his late-career work. In filmmaker Mike Leigh’s recent Turner biodrama, Queen Victoria pronounces the artist’s new canvas “vile.”

Exhibit highlights include “The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, October 16, 1834,” which documents that incident and demonstrates Turner’s merit as a history painter. The artist hired a boat to view the conflagration. Blazing at the horizon in yellow and orange, Turner’s rendering of it is both journalistic and blisteringly dramatic.

In “Peace–Burial at Sea,” Turner depicts the funeral of an artist friend, with the ships’ black hues reflecting solemnly in the water. The work is paired with the tonally converse “War. The Exile and the Rock Limpet,” featuring the defeated Napoleon on the island of St. Helena. The sunset’s reds and oranges convey the bloodiness of war.

In “Snow Storm–Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth,” vigorous brushwork brings a tempest to life. While some dispute the story that Turner tied himself to a mast to experience the event, critic John Ruskin was impressed. He called the painting “one of the very grandest statements of sea-motion, mist and light, that has ever been put on canvas.”

Coinciding with the exhibit is “Luminous World: British Works on Paper, 1770-1870.” Featuring work by Turner and some of his contemporaries, the show opens at the Legion of Honor July 11.

J. M. W. Turner: Painting Set Free
Where: de Young Museum, Golden Gate Park, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, S.F.
When: 9:30 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays, except to 8:45 p.m. Fridays; closes Sept. 20
Admission: $20 to $25
Contact: (415) 750-3600, www.famsf.org

Anita Katz

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